When love was in the air

A union on land and in the air.
A union on land and in the air. // Creative Commons

Anne Morrow Lindbergh needed to crane her neck to such a degree to see her husband, Charles, that she could have been looking up at an airplane. But their relationship was such that only his height, a towering 6-foot-3, would prevent them from seeing perpetually eye to eye.

As it happened, Anne was not to spend much of her time staring upwards, but rather forwards from her seat beside Charles in the sky. Evident in “Aviators, Authors, and Environmentalists: Exploring the Lindbergh Papers and Photographs in Manuscripts & Archives” at the Sterling Memorial Library is that, for both members of this cockpit couple, there was no higher calling than flight.

Glancing over the exhibit, which celebrates the formal opening to research of the Lindberghs’ papers, feels a tad like rummaging through a dry file cabinet. On display is a smattering of maps, missives, postcards and photographs that chart the daring duo’s legacies beyond Charles’ famed solo trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris on the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 — but it is a sterile smattering that leaves no indication of the dramatic events surrounding their relationship. Where the exhibit succeeds, however, is in presenting selections that make the viewer feel as though she is unpacking the overflowing contents of a traveler’s lovelorn suitcase.

Charles was as much an explorer of the skies as of the frontiers of innovation. A graduate of the engineering school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Charles designed and patented a “perfusion pump” that maintains organs’ viability outside the body. Below that structure, reminiscent of an orchid plant, is another meticulously annotated sketch for a novel method to collect atmospheric microorganisms. Also displayed are records of Charles’ contributions to the military, which included helping modernize the country’s air capabilities and launch the space program.

The two were no strangers to fan mail. Immediately to your left upon entering are what is surely only a sampling of postcards from earnest Japanese youth, each praising the Lindberghs for completing their pioneering flight to East Asia, which concluded with volunteering at the Chinese Flood Relief Commission. “My dearest Lindy!” reads one, set in curlicued handwriting that recalls the loop-de-loops of a stunt plane. “I called to you loudly from my window. But you passed at full speed to Tokyo,” the writer concludes, miffed like any teenager today at his favorite celebrity’s unintentional slight. Other letters to the couple from statesmen, first ladies, fellow authors and artists makes clear their stature as the eminent explorers of the day.

Though it seems they spent their lives primarily in the sky, the couple remained committed to the earth from which they had taken off. Charles became a passionate advocate for environmental protection and conservation, working especially on behalf of endangered species. Personal photographs of their travels also showcase their respect for the riches of their surroundings. Gazing upon an image of a deep and fractured canyon, one almost wishes the photographer had turned the lens on herself instead to capture what could have been the canyon of her own mouth, agape with awe.

In her writings, Anne also made the natural world a focus. Charles wrote as well, going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for “The Spirit of St. Louis,” his autobiographical account of the trip. Not to be outdone, Anne authored 14 books, as well as numerous articles and poems.

Missing from the papers, however, is evidence of the intimately personal. There are no love letters, no miss-you notes, no hastily scribbled reminders to take out the trash or buy broccoli — in other words, no hallmarks of a life where your feet never leave the ground for longer than it takes to leap.
And little is said of how the two first met, or of the individuals beyond their achievements. We are told only that Anne Spencer Morrow, daughter of the American ambassador to Mexico, married Charles Augustus Lindbergh in 1929. If there is a story here, it is told in snapshots: In one photograph, the couple is shown seated and smiling with their children, chuckling as though pleasantly surprised to find themselves on solid ground. A stark image of Anne in silhouette, writing “North to the Orient” in 1935, speaks volumes of her character without a single word. Seeing her scribbling, solitary at her desk, we remember what her beguiling dimples have induced us to forget: how alone she was as a female explorer in the mid-20th century, despite her husband’s company.

If she ever felt lonely, however, it’s not evident from the exhibit. There are comparatively few photographs of Charles and Anne on their own — side by side seemed to be their natural state. What is evident, despite a pronounced lack of emotive tropes, is that their relationship was one in which Anne was probably never lonely for long. You don’t need to send love letters to each other if you’re always together — rooted on the ground, through takeoffs rickety and smooth, and soaring through the boundless air.

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